Now is an opportunity for the post-16 sector to develop a vision for the future, together.

Professor Julie Lyndon urges the post-16 education sector to come together to design a shared future

We’re now two years on from the publication of Ellen Hazelkorn’s review of the oversight of post compulsory education in Wales and, with the publication last week of the Welsh Government’s technical consultation on proposed reforms, we’re a step closer to the implementation of that review’s recommendations. As Chair of Universities Wales, the membership body for Welsh universities, I have watched these developments with interest, and as an organisation we have worked to engage meaningfully with the proposals for regulatory reform.


Although an article on regulatory reform is unlikely to ever be the most read story on BBC News, the proposed reforms have the potential to significantly change the post education and training landscape in Wales which consists of hundreds of thousands of learners. The key recommendations of the review were that the Welsh Government develop an overarching vision for the post compulsory education system for Wales, and establish a new authority with oversight of the entire post-compulsory sector including further and higher education, work-based learning and sixth forms. When the Welsh Government published its initial White Paper on these proposals in June 2017 we welcomed the open, high-level nature of the proposals and the White Paper’s recognition of the importance of institutional autonomy, academic freedom and the value of quality research funding in Wales.


With the publication of the technical consultation the temptation is to focus solely on the detail. And indeed, there is a great deal of detail. The consultation stretches over 157 pages and asks 100 questions covering everything from quality assurance and committee structures to financial management and technical aspects of higher education governance.


For further and higher education, sixth forms, and work-based learning, there will be areas of detail where all stakeholders feel strongly. And this presents a challenge. The narrative of these proposals has always been one of greater collaboration, about an effective post-16 sector working together. An understandable consequence of a focus on the detail is that it risks setting providers and stakeholders at odds from the beginning.


A vision for post-compulsory education in Wales


However, we believe that there is an opportunity now to start building the collaboration that these reforms to post-16 education seek to deliver. Although the technical consultation lays out the thinking in terms of what this new organisation, the tertiary commission, should look like, it does not yet set out the overarching vision for the sector, as the Hazelkorn report recommended.


Constructing a vision for the post-16 system in Wales, and identifying the key principles that should sit at the heart of such a system, is an exercise that can bring together all those involved in post-16 education and training in Wales. That’s why we are already working with colleagues in further education to bring together the cross party groups on universities and further education to discuss our shared ambitions for a vision for post-16 education. With the scale of these reforms, the level of detail involved and the fact that the impact of these reforms will be felt for decades to come, it’s vital that decisions around the detail are taken in clear sight of what Wales wants to achieve from such reforms.


Students at the centre of the system


One area that Universities Wales has spoken of before, and feels strongly about, is the value of any system being student-centred, and providing an environment where student choice can be freely exercised. We feel this is an important principle that should be at the heart of the vision for post-16 education and are pleased to see the consultation include clear commitments to include students in the governance of the Commission and in various other important mechanisms such as the development of ‘Learner Protection and Progression Plans’.


A changing Wales


When the White Paper on these reforms was published last summer we highlighted how in a fast moving and largely unpredictable global policy and funding environment, a future body must be flexible and agile. There have been a number of high profile reports that identify Wales as being particularly exposed to possible job loss from automation and artificial intelligence. A recent Centre for Cities report found that an estimated 112,000 jobs in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport will be at risk of automation by 2030 and work by Nesta referenced by the Wales Centre for Public Policy estimated that a third of the Welsh workforce is employed in the least productive and most generic industries often considered at highest risk of automation.


One of the reasons a clear vision is so vital is that there are a number of things to be gained from the proposals for a joined up post-16 sector, particularly in Wales’ response to the challenges of automation which, studies frequently conclude, must involve life-long learning and the provision of higher level skills.


Welsh universities are already looking at new ways to provide higher level skills and are currently developing Wales’ first degree apprenticeships in the Welsh Government’s priority areas of engineering, advanced manufacturing and computing. The development of these programmes has included a number of significant challenges, many the result of the distinct and separate higher education and work-based learning systems. The technical consultation suggests this kind of work, and the collaborations between universities, colleges and work-based learning providers that support this kind of work, will become more straightforward to fund and deliver which is a good thing for providers and learners.


And, as well as the provision of higher level skills, research and development in Wales will be crucial. Wales is a leading academic destination for research and has both the highest proportion of ‘world leading’ research in terms of its impact in the UK. There are a number of proposals in the technical consultation around research and innovation, and it’ll be important to Wales’ economic prospects that we get it right including on important areas such as quality research funding and innovation funding.


Diversity of providers


The technical consultation recognises the diversity of provision in Wales. It’s important to remember that this diversity does not just lie between further and higher education but also between universities themselves. Universities in Wales have different missions and work to achieve different things. That’s why the protection of institutional autonomy and academic freedom is so important. And why we welcome the recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work and that the system in Wales will need to respond to ‘more diverse learners’


For us, the right approach to this diversity is a system that enables providers to deliver and one that allows for the proportionate, appropriate regulation of different providers.


And part of recognising the diversity of the post compulsory sector is also recognising how Welsh universities are international institutions operating in a global context. In 2014, 46% of Welsh research publications were internationally co-authored and Welsh universities generated £487m in export earnings in 2015. It’s important the reforms allow us to continue to build upon the international success of our universities and the benefits this success brings to Wales.


Working together


The technical consultation provides those of us with a stake in the future of post-16 in Wales with a great deal to consider. Universities in Wales have consistently championed the genuine benefits that could arise from careful development of the reform proposals. And we’re keen to work in collaboration with our colleagues in the post-16 sector and the Welsh Government to contribute to the development of a post-16 system that works for the people, places, and employers of Wales.


I was reminded this week of a proverb that applies perfectly to these circumstances – ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ We’re seeking opportunities to do this, such as working with colleagues in further education to create a space for the conversations about what shared principles we have for a vision of post-16 education in Wales. With the changing workplace, and the changing workforce, it’s more important than ever that we provide an environment, a system, that allows for strong, agile institutions that have students at the centre.

Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash


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Professor Julie Lydon OBE is Chair of Universities Wales which represents the interests of universities in Wales.

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